In order to build a strong brand, your business or startup needs a consistent voice that speaks to your audience. Using a style guide will help you unify your message so that you engage more audiences and spend less time managing your content.
A style guide is a dynamic document for teams that contains standards for writing content and helps your company maintain a consistent style across different assets. Common sections include rules for using punctuation, a list of words and phrases specific to your organization, and suggestions for avoiding bias and increasing accessibility. It may also include detailed sections on conventions for specific content types.
Your company’s style guide will help you as you create various forms of internal and external communications, including marketing materials and ads, one-pages and briefs, blog posts and content marketing, web and landing pages, and internal memos. Combined with a strong visual brand identity, this document will help you create a strong voice that’s instantly recognizable.
In this post, I’ll explain why a style guide is an integral part of your content strategy and why it leads to better results.
Why Style Guides Are Essential
There’s a strong likelihood that many people create content for your organization. Some of these team members, like those on a communications team, have a lot of experience writing. Others might be non-native English speakers or their focus might be on other tasks, like product design or development.
Each of these people have their own unique voice and way of communicating and, over time, inconsistencies and incorrect copy might begin to appear. This confuses audiences and dilutes the message of your brand.
Furthermore, typos and incorrect use of punctuation looks unprofessional, causing potential clients or users to lose trust in your company.
A style guide will help you prevent such mistakes from happening in the first place. When you have a guideline in place that all team members can reference while writing, then your comms team will also be able to spend less time on rewrites and more time on further projecting your message and creating demand for your products.
What to Include in Your Style Guide
Instructions: This will be useful for both seasoned and new team members, as well as people who have never used a style guide before. You might also include step-by-step instructions on your company’s content writing and review process.
References: Include links to any visual branding guidelines used by the company, as well as general guidebooks for style and spelling. Many companies use the AP Stylebook for any questions not answered in their own guide.
Numbers: When should numbers be spelled out and when should you use numerals? Does your company ever use abbreviations?
Date and time conventions: How should dates be formatted and abbreviated? Do you need to worry about time zones and how to treat them? For example, can you use Sunday, June 12 at 1:00 p.m. EDT, or can you simply say Sun, June 5 at 1 pm ET?
Titles and capitalization: Indicate how titles for documents and subtitles within them should be treated, as well as special words that are commonly used by your company. You should also indicate how job, department, and product names should be capitalized.
Punctuation: Provide examples of all punctuation marks, particularly those that aren’t commonly known by non-writers (e.g., em dashes) and explain how they’re used.
Avoiding biased language: Guide your writers on how to avoid gendered terms (e.g., handmade instead of manmade), use proper pronouns, and address names for groups of people. Depending on your audience, you could subdivide this into further instructions based on groups or different asset types.
Asset-specific conventions: Consider including sections for the different types of content and assets that your writers normally create, including blogs, social media posts, and press releases. These might include instructions on how long the copy should be, the tone of the writing (punchy versus formal), and whether you can include URLs.
Company-specific terminology: List out all the names and terms used in your department or company so that writers know how they’re spelled and formatted. This should be updated over time.
Words list: The word list is the most dynamic aspect of the style guide and should include all the words your team commonly has to look up while writing. If you had to make a decision on it, then it should be listed here. Examples might include common prefixes and whether they’re hyphenated (postgraduate or post-graduate?) and words with two commonly used spellings (catalog vs. catalogue). You may designate someone on your team who reviews copy to manage this list.
How to Use Your Style Guide
The style guide should be an integral part of both the writing and content review process for both FTEs and freelancers. It should be written and managed by someone with knowledge of writing conventions and updated regularly to reflect changes in your company and new situations that arise.
Writers should have access to the style guide as they’re writing, particularly the sections you include about specific content types. Anyone who is generating content for your organization should be familiar with this document and should reference it periodically.
Your content manager or communications team should control the document and use it actively when copyediting and proofreading any copy that crosses their screens. It should be referenced when any decisions are made in terms of how to handle texts and it should be referenced when giving feedback to writers. They can also use the style guide when creating content templates for writers to fill in.
The design team should have access to this document as a second pair of eyes before your assets are created. They might also hand it off to other vendors who are creating text for your organization but aren’t directly involved in content writing, such as closed captioners for videos.
The style guide can also be sent out to external partners and vendors with whom you’re collaborating so that everyone’s on the same page.
Consistency Across Assets
Once you have the rules established, your team can begin to focus more on the message of the content rather than technical details. You’ll now have the tools to create consistency across your brand so that you can focus on creativity in your marketing strategy and design.
With your content strategy in place, you’ll have more freedom to focus on more big-picture issues when producing all types of content, including internal communications and handbooks, product descriptions and pitches, websites and landing pages, content marketing and blogs, press releases, and social media posts.
Consistency is key to establishing your brand and communicating a unified voice to your most important stakeholders.
Along with visual branding, a strong content writing strategy will help you access your intended audience and grow responsibly. While developing it requires some research and time investment, it will help you streamline your processes and lead to more professional results.
As you grow, you might also consider outsourcing your copyediting and proofreading so that your team can focus entirely on messaging. A reliable team like the one at Flatpage can help you manage your company’s style and ensure consistency and error-free copy for all of your assets.
About the author
Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career as a content writer, copyeditor, and proofreader for individuals, nonprofits, and businesses. She is currently an editor for Meta (formerly Facebook, Inc.).